Finding French Guiana

Selby Gardens was privileged this year to participate in one of the most intensive studies of tropical flora in recent history. The BRIDGE Project (for “Bridging Information on Tree Diversity in French Guiana) brings together scientists from many countries to work in one of the least-disturbed and remote corners of the world. Their goal is to gather information which will help establish baseline data and contribute to a greater understanding of why tropical forests are so diverse. In order to do that, this project, and really, all of biology depends on “wilderness head-count” efforts conducted by institutions such as Selby Gardens. Being able to put a name on a plant species and understanding distribution ranges is the first step in conducting intelligent biodiversity and conservation projects.

Ask most people where French Guiana is, and the usual answer is either “somewhere in the Pacific” or “in Africa.” French Guiana, however, is located in northern South America just east of two other relatively small countries, Guyana and Suriname; to the south is the huge country of Brazil, and to the north lies the Caribbean Sea. Air France provides service from Miami and an opportunity to island hop through the Caribbean, making stops in Haiti, Martinique, and Guadeloupe. French Guiana is actually an overseas department of France, perhaps most similar to our state of Hawaii. The capital, Cayenne, is a traditional French colonial town with a low-rise downtown section full of quaint wooden homes and abundant markets operated by Chinese immigrants.

Of the three weeks that I spent in-country, I was in Cayenne working at the main herbarium about half the time and in the field the other half. It was a pleasure finally to meet two French botanists that I had been communicating with for over a decade, Jean-Jacques de Granville and Marie “Fanchon” Prèvost. They presented me with a huge backlog of unidentified plants. I pored excitedly through old collections that had not seen the light of day for decades. I discovered several new species that will be published in future journal articles and found many more species never before recorded in French Guiana.

As always, the highlight of the visit was the fieldwork. In this case, it was seeing the forest plots where some of the BRIDGE surveys are being carried out. Our first trip was by car to the western part of the Overseas Department, toward the border with Suriname, into some beautiful white-sand forests. Forests that grow on white sand are usually low in density and low in stature, allowing more light to reach the ground. As a result, shrubby and herbaceous plants are more abundant.

We stayed in a “carbet,” which is an open-sided wooden structure that pretty much lacks furniture but has plenty of space for stringing hammocks. My main contacts there were two botanists from the United States working under contract for a French research agency, Chris Baraloto and Tim Paine. They are highly skilled at the identification of tree species and are working with many other botanists and ecologists to build a very impressive database with their findings. The database includes information on ecological, morphological, physiological, and molecular characters, which together result in a very powerful analytical tool that will help improve our knowledge about the various dimensions of biological diversity and evolution. We were joined by Elodie Courtois, a French ecology student with a keen eye for detail and a strong curiosity about forest dynamics. Her mentors were proud to tell me that she had just won the Alwyn Gentry Award for the Best Student Poster at the most recent meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation.

After invigorating hikes through sometimes torrential rain and the discovery of many interesting plants, I returned to Cayenne for several more days of work in the herbarium. Then, Elodie and I packed our bags for another trip: this time, by helicopter to the Nouragues Field Station, 100 km to the south of Cayenne in primary forest. The field station was built in 1986 and, despite being in such a remote place, is quite luxurious by field standards. The forests there are among some of the most beautiful and abundant in wildlife that I have seen, and an impressive 400-meter (1300 ft) high granite outcrop provides for stunning scenery.

Unfortunately, en-route we saw the destruction of several river beds by gold mining activity. However the Nouragues preserve, being a protected area, has been mostly immune to this activity. The spectacular granitic outcrop adjacent to the camp has a completely different flora from the surrounding forest and is home to many species of bromeliads that I was eager to see, photograph, and collect. We spent three days in the forest and two days on the outcrops, collecting many new herbarium specimens. I was fortunate to receive permission to collect living plants for Selby Gardens and brought back more than 70 different collections including epiphytes, vines, and shrubs.

The results of Selby’s work there provide authoritative identifications for use by ecologists and botanists and further cement our reputation as an important participant in international efforts to inventory, classify, and conserve life on Earth. It is nice to know that there are places like French Guiana still out there with large stretches of mostly untouched forest, and I am very glad to have “found” it for myself and for Selby Gardens. We wish to give special thanks to the personnel of the BRIDGE Project, the Herbarium of the French Institute for Research and Development, and the Nouragues Field Station for funding my visit and travel in the Overseas Department and for their most gracious hospitality.